Every day, dozens of articles appear on company culture--and almost all of them have the same blind spot: they assume that every company is an island, whose inhabitants live and work only among themselves.
We know this is almost never the case. Most companies work with other companies, and those companies could easily have toxic cultures that can infect yours.
The digital agency where I work provides an extreme example of this. We work every day hand in hand with other, usually much larger, companies with entrenched cultures. Some of them are great fun, but others not so much. You might think that we could simply "fire" all the bad clients, but that's not a realistic long-term strategy.
Dealing with bad cultures is a necessary part of doing business. But you can make it work.
The first step is to recognize that danger, and why you can't ignore it. Having a relationship with a company with a bad culture is similar to having one with a bad romantic partner. There's no trust; nothing is ever good enough; they're never there for you; and they can be plain-old abusive.
That's unpleasant, of course, but the chief problem is that it can impact your self-esteem. Rather than confidently thinking through challenges, you will second guess yourself.
You may even come to believe that the criticism is right and the abuse justified. In the end, you'll become what they say you are.
So what can you do to ensure that doesn't happen?
1. Talk it out
Just as with any self-help program, talking about the problem is half the solution. It won't make a bad culture go away, but at the very least it's healthy and cathartic.
Managers have to make a safe zone where people can speak their minds. Above all, don't fake it and pretend the situation is normal. That's the surest road to allowing a bad culture to erode yours.
2. Make a plan
Talking helps, but you also have to turn the corner and deal with it.
You need to be intentional about protecting your culture. Decide who takes the lead, how often you want to rotate people on and off the project, what the limits are, and how you'll handle it when the other company crosses the line.
3. Play on your home turf
This is a simple step that can greatly alter the dynamics of a relationship. Try to make any meeting you can physically in your space, not theirs.
Failing that, schedule meetings using your software. That way, discussions occur against the backdrop of your culture, not theirs. It also makes them your guest, and they'll usually be on better behavior as a result.
4. Say no
We once had a client demand that we put together a last-minute pitch over the Christmas holiday, which would have ruined everyone's vacation. We told them no, and they accepted it.
A lot of companies feel they can't say no to a client or partner, but you should always feel confident enough to turn down a seriously unreasonable request. Your culture is much more important than any one deal.
As you can see, it's nearly impossible for many businesses to avoid toxic cultures. So be prepared to handle these negative relationships just as you would any other.
Don't blame yourself for their bad behavior--instead create emotional distance and be honest about the situation. A good culture always outlasts a bad one, so long as you stay true to who you are.